The GOP’s Plan of Attack

One of the things that has made the Republican Party successful for much of the last twenty-five years or so was their willingness to take a politically unpopular position and stand by it, wedging people between their attacks and their principles. It’s a strategy that created the electoral mentality where a voter might say, “I don’t always agree with him, but at least I know where he stands.” George W. Bush, John McCain, Joe Lieberman (who is functionally a Republican), and many others have done well when they took positions and stood by them in the face of popular support for better positions. On the flip side, we saw Paul Wellstone win two elections by standing firm on his principles and not taking politically expedient stands. I shudder to compare the two, but the similarity is worth pointing out. Voters like knowing where politicians stand and what they stand for, and Wellstone is a prime example of how principled stances can be rewarded.

The Republican Party has been crafting a narrative for the general election around two very unpopular positions: the prolonging of the war in Iraq into the infinite future and granting retroactive immunity to telecom companies who helped the Bush administration break the law and spy on Americans without warrant. They are attacking Democrats on these issues and attempting to brand the Democrats’ contrary positions as one that arises from weakness. While we’ve seen Republicans head down this path with repeated accusations of Democrats stabbing the troops in the back or pushing for a surrender in Iraq, The Hill reports on the growth of these talking points into their national election strategy.

Republican lawmakers, candidates and party officials have launched a nationwide campaign this week to portray Democrats as  weak on national security.

Their starting point is a dispute over the administration’s counter-terrorism surveillance policy, but the end point is the election in November.

But a nuanced policy debate outside of Washington could be a risky move for Democrats, who are competing with slogans that proved effective in campaigns since the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks.

Republicans appeared to be going back to that playbook this week in various parts of the country, trying to link vulnerable lawmakers with the bitter dispute in Washington.

Leaving aside the trite “this is bad for Democrats” assumption,  this is worrying to the extent that it shows the Republicans willing to go to the mat on issues that they’re just not popular for. This will inevitably lead to the sort of concern trolling journalism provided by The Hill’s Alexander Bolton. Combined with the inevitable (and already existent) fawning admiration for John McCain in the Beltway press, and you can see a scenario where every insane attack by the Republicans on Democrats on Iraq or FISA is met by back slapping enthusiasm from the press. “Boy are these Republicans principled and manly!” “Why would Democrats dare to talk about policy now?” “There’s no way challenging Bush will play well for Democrats!” And so on…

As I’ve said before, the Republicans are going to hinge their election strategy on convincing America that Democratic candidates want the terrorists to win, want to stab the troops in the back and run home as fast as can be.  We know this is coming and the Republicans are confirming it. They are banking on their ability to stand firm on unpopular positions while slandering Democrats. I won’t make any predictions about their likelihood of success, but it is certain that they will succeed in creating a truly toxic environment – which is yet another reason anyone who thinks we can solve this country’s problems by working with these people on issues like Iraq, health care, and the economy is just not paying attention to what the Republican Party is all about.

The ability for Democrats to succeed under this kind of rancid attack is going to be determined by the ability for Democrats to, like Wellstone, stand up for what they believe in and make sure that voters know exactly what their principles are. It’s time for Democrats to show some spine and be prepared to push back hard against the coming Republican smear attacks.

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